There’s a saying that genius and madness often go hand in hand. As the great English poet and politician Lord Byron, who himself exhibited a considerable amount of wildness, infamously stated, “We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but we are all more or less touched.” There are a great many examples of artists throughout history, who crossed over to the side of madness or were “touched” by it. One of the recent names that come up in mind is that of Phil Spector, the ingenious music producer and the infamous cold-blooded murderer.
Following the ‘Wall of Sound’ producer’s death over the weekend, there is no better time to revisit Phil Spector’s duality. As his ex-wife and former musical partner Ronnie Spector said in her statement following his death: “As I said many times while he was alive, he was a brilliant producer, but a lousy husband. Unfortunately, Phil was not able to live and function outside of the recording studio. Darkness set in, many lives were damaged.”
Growing up in a first-generation Jewish family in Bronx, New York, Spector suffered a great shock at a tender age when his father committed suicide. He chose music as his coping mechanism and formed a high school band called The Teddy Bears after moving to Los Angeles. Though the band didn’t survive long, they produced a few popular numbers among which was ‘To Know Him is to Love Him,’ written by Spector, inspired by his father’s epitaph carved on the tombstone.
After his initial years of working as a lead vocalist and a lyric writer, came his actual days of glory that as a music producer. Celebrated as the ‘First Tycoon of Teen,’ his degree of control even as a mere nineteen-year-old was inspiring. His trademark is the ‘Wall of Sound’ technique that yielded a layered and dense effect produced by bringing together a large group of musicians often doubling and tripling the sound of several instruments playing in unison. It caught the attention of The Beatles and the band signed him up to produce their ill-fated LP Let It Be.
Spector himself preferred to call it “a Wagnerian approach to rock & roll: little symphonies for the kids” It’s a hint of the ego that would drive Spector towards darkness.
Although his years of mastery and control were often fraught with complaints from the music fraternity, many claiming Spector threatened them in some way, people preferred to look the other way. Stories went around about Spector’s alarming behaviour towards Cohen and Ramones while producing their albums in the latter half of the 1970s, allegedly threatening to have the Ramones beaten up during the making of End of the Century or indeed pulling a gun on Leonard Cohen during their sessions for Death of a Ladies Man.
These incidents were mostly dismissed as a post-traumatic reaction after the 1974 car accident where he flew through the windshield and sustained major head injuries. Considering Spector had garnered a fearsome reputation as one of the greatest hitmakers of the 20th century, it is perhaps no surprise that little was done about his behaviour. After all, he produced the goods on most occasions.
It is often difficult for us to accept the darker side of the celebrated icons even though it was staring us in the face the whole time. Ultimatums, in one form or the other, break our illusions. In Spector’s case, this ultimatum was the murder charge of actress Lana Clarkson in 2003. The actress was found dead in Spector’s mansion with a gunshot wound in her mouth and visible signs of abuse.
During his interview with Esquire after the incident, Spector proclaimed it to be an “accidental suicide” where Clarkson “Kissed the gun.” However, a frantic phone call from his house by his driver Adriano de Souza gave him away as De Souza described him coming out of the back door with a gun in his hand saying “I think I’ve killed somebody.” Much later in 2009, the court gave its verdict and saw Spector found guilty and later sentenced to 19-years-to-life in prison. It was there that he would spend his last remaining days, dying over the weekend due to complications after contracting COVID-19.
Yet another horrific revelation supporting the genius and madness theory, Spector is perhaps one of the clearest images of the fabled phrase. While it can be easy to be drawn into the mammoth sounds he great, the sunshine hits that he littered the airwaves with, it is our duty as aware individuals to decide if we should overlook the madness or not. We should remember that it is often us who give the artists a free pass, a feeling of being invincible, by failing to act promptly. The consequences are dire, in this case costing a life.
The life of Phil Spector is one that hangs forever in the balance. His heavenly compositions only made his hellish behaviour feel worse. A man who made his money creating love songs and tributes to the freedom of art lost himself in the darkness of his own ego. While we will never forget the music he made we must always remember too, the sadness he created. Between Heaven and Hell, Phil Spector is an icon who warrants eternity in purgatory.